Snow Hill: rare fruit and ruffians in London’s history

A while ago, I saw this piece of London trivia on the ever-interesting Cabbie Blog website: “On 10 April 1633 Apothecary Thomas Johnson hung a bunch of bananas in his shop at Snow Hill, the first bananas seen in Britain”.

Snow Hill features in a couple of posts I wrote a while ago; you can read one here, which links to the other. Some of what follows will be repetition, for which I beg your indulgence, but I have also expanded my Snow Hill entry.

I’ve mentioned recently how easy it is to find things out these days with online searches. The downside is that it’s also easy to get distracted. I thought I’d have a quick look to update my information on Snow Hill and found myself at the Premier Inn Hub Soho. I also discovered that Whitbread owns Premier Inn (more of which later; it is relevant, at least by my standards). After that I eschewed the internet and went to my library of books on London to find out more on Snow Hill.

Illustration from Old and New London, Volume II, by Walter Thornbury

Snow Hill was, according to one source (Gillian Bebbington), “Snore Hylle in the time of Henry III – a mysterious name of unknown origin”. But we can’t leave it at that.

The Oxford Dictionary of London Place Names says it was Snore Hylle in the 13th century; Snowrehille in 1507, Snourehilstrete in 1544; and Shore hill in 1598. The name, it says, is from an Old English word meaning ‘road that curves across a gradient’ and hyll. “The short road still so named,” says the dictionary, “is indeed a relatively steep and winding one, although it is not on the same line as the medieval one.” Eilert Ekwall, in his Street-Names of the City of London, gives even more variations on the name; the footnote to the Snow Hill entry is nearly as long as the entry itself, but adds very little.

FH Habben, in his London Street Names, says, “I take Snore to be that of the early landowner, probably Snorro, a Scandinavian settler; one of the unwept, unhonoured, and unsung,” but then goes on to say, “One daring old antiquary has it Sore Hill, and attributes the name to the labour and pain of the ascent, as indeed was the case until the construction of the viaduct; for which better testimony can we require than that of Charles Dickens in ‘Nicholas Nickleby’?”

Another possibility I have noted down, but the source is a mystery, is that the name could come from the Celtic word ‘suadh’, a brook, because the hill once led to the Fleet River.

Back to Dickens: as Habben says, Snow Hill was indeed mentioned in Nicholas Nickleby (also Little Dorrit and, briefly, Oliver Twist). In Nicholas Nickleby Dickens says, “The name is such a good one. Snow Hill – Snow Hill too, coupled with a Saracen’s Head: picturing to us by a double association of ideas, something stern and rugged!”

Photo courtesy of openplaques.org

That brings us on to the Saracen’s Head inn, which provides another theory behind the name of Snow Hill. The Saracens Head was a coaching inn dating back to the time of Richard the Lionheart (who stopped there when he came back from the Crusades and gave the landlord permission so to name it). Passengers arriving at the tavern after travelling a long way would generally, by then, be sound asleep and snoring.

The inn was demolished in 1868 and the Snow Hill police station stood on the site until 2019 when it was vacated. In 2020 the City of London sold the lease of the building for 151 years to Whitbread, and in 2021 the City of London Corporation approved plans for the redevelopment of the Grade II listed building into a Premier Inn hotel.

The old Snow Hill Police Station. Photo courtesy of Whitbread

According to The London Encyclopaedia, Snow Hill would have been a place to avoid in 18th-century London. First, the steepness of the hill made it tempting for gangs of young men called Mohocks to seize elderly women and roll them to the bottom of the hill in barrels. Then, during the Jacobite rising of 1715, a group of Jacobites congregated at the bottom of Snow Hill to toast the memory of James. If any passers-by declined to join in the toast, they were stripped.

Snow Hill has a connection with a gruesome 17-century murder. Sarah Malcolm, a 22-year-old laundress, strangled an old woman for her money and cut the throat of a young girl who was evidently in the wrong place at the wrong time. Malcolm, who tried to lay the blame elsewhere, was found guilty of the murders and hanged. A copy of her confession was sold for twenty guineas and two days before her execution she was sketched by Hogarth, a sketch that Horace Walpole bought for five pounds. Following her execution her body was taken to an undertaker’s premises in Show Hill where it could be viewed for a fee.

Snow Hill is where John Bunyan died in 1688, at the sign of the Star, a shop run by his grocer friend Mr Strudwich. Thomas Cromwell, the great-grandson of Oliver Cromwell, also had a grocer’s shop on Snow Hill

The hill was once the site of one of the City of London conduits and on days of great celebration it was made to run with red and white wine. Sadly, this tradition died out after the anniversary of the coronation of George I in 1727.

2 thoughts on “Snow Hill: rare fruit and ruffians in London’s history

  1. beetleypete May 2, 2022 / 4:11 pm

    Other than the fact that I have walked along Snow Hill on various occasions, I have little to add, Elizabeth. A very comprehensice history indeed.
    (I thought the Premier Inn was in West Smithfield though. )
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • thestreetnames May 3, 2022 / 9:03 am

      Thanks, Pete, I thought I had replied to this but it doesn’t appear to have gone through. I believe the Premier Inn is planning a Hub hotel in Snow Hill. All the best, Elizabeth

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